A Simple Guide to Getting Into D&D
So, you’ve heard about this thing called D&D, and you want to know more. Here’s the information you need to get involved in the quickest, cheapest, and most painless way possible.
What’s In a Name?
Well, the full name is “Dungeons and Dragons”, but you’re probably never going to see it spelled full length like that, and you’re probably never going to hear it said like that either, unless the person spelling it or saying it is getting ready to say something ugly about it. Normal people who know nothing about the game, as well as the people who actually play, are going to say D&D. On the internet you might see it spelled DnD, because that ampersand can really be a pain when you’re typing, or even worse when you’re trying to find where it’s hiding on your mobile device keyboard.
Now that you know what to call this game of ours (and now that I can use those abbreviations for the rest of this article), let’s talk about where it came from, and what that means to you as a prospective player.
A Quick History Lesson
There’s a great article on Wikipedia about D&D, but it’s a long read, so I’ll just give you the high points. Back in 1974, a couple of guys named Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were playing a game called “Chainmail”. It was basically a game about maneuvering two armies on a battlefield, with each player controlling all of the soldiery of one of the armies. Then, one day, Gygax and Arneson had an idea that would change tabletop gaming forever: what if, instead of controlling hundreds of impersonal soldiers, a player instead controlled just one of them. But not just any soldier: a hero, with special abilities and skills. And then these heroes could get together in a small group, instead of an army, and they could have adventures. And that was how D&D started.
The Versions You Need To Know About
There have been a lot of versions of the game since that 1974 breakthrough, and if you look hard enough, you’ll find groups out there that are playing versions that go right back to the very beginning. That’s all well and good, but you don’t need to know about all of them as a new player. Just concern yourself with the ones that are still being played regularly at present, and in a wide variety of locations. Fortunately, there are only three that fit this description:
Number One: D&D 3.5 is probably the “oldest” D&D that’s still being commonly played. When Wizards of the Coast (generally abbreviated “WotC”) started publishing D&D back in 1997, they came up with something that completely changed the way tabletop roleplaying games worked. We call it the “d20 System”. I’m not going to explain in this article just how the d20 System works (you’ll have to wait for the next article), but suffice it to say that it was an extremely huge breakthrough. It was such a big breakthrough that there was something called the Open Game License that meant that everyone got to start using it, and they did. D&D 3rd Edition was the first D&D to use the d20 System, and 3.5 was an update to tweak some of the rules. And you’ll still find people playing 3.5 all over. Some of them even have t-shirts that say things like “3.5 Until I Die”. I actually had one of those, but I don’t wear it anymore. More about that later.
Number Two: Pathfinder is not exactly D&D, but it’s very similar. Remember how that Open Game License meant that anyone was allowed to use the d20 System in their own games? That same Open Game License meant that the rules for D&D 3.5 were also available for anyone to modify on their own, just as long as those modifications were also available to be modified: share and share alike. A company called Paizo took that open-sourced nature of D&D 3.5, and ran with it. And they ran like crazy. Some people call Pathfinder “version 3.75”, and that’s pretty accurate; it’s like D&D 3.5 with more tweaks and options. The great thing about Pathfinder is that Paizo is still producing new content for the system, whereas WotC isn’t making anything new for D&D 3.5 anymore. The maybe-not-so-great thing about Pathfinder is that there is really an excess of content, and it can get overwhelming, especially for new players and GM’s (which is what games other than D&D call their DM’s). Still, you’ll find people all over playing Pathfinder, and if you like the old-school feel of D&D 3.5, you’ll probably like Pathfinder a lot.
Number Three: Then, there’s the new kid on the block: D&D 5th Edition, commonly called “5E”. WotC released 5E back in 2014, and it took off like a rocket. It’s the new golden child of D&D, and all kinds of new rules supplements, and lore supplements, and adventure supplements are being released for it. There’s even something called the “DM’s Guild” where people develop their own content and put it out on the internet. They also have something called “Adventurers’ League” which provides organized play at different locations. If you want to find a D&D game, you’re probably going to find a lot more people playing 5E than anything else out there today. Incidentally, I personally love 5E, and most of my site content here is 5E-related. This would be why I don’t wear my “3.5 Until I Die” shirt anymore.
Getting It All Together: the Must-Haves
So, now that you know what options are out there, let’s talk about what you need to gather up in order to get started. The list is very short, and most of the items on the list are actually free. That’s great, because it means you can try out D&D with very little risk or investment. What’s on the list? You need the rules, you need some dice, and you need to find a group to play with.
The rules are one of the things that are free. WotC has a free PDF document, called the “Player Basic Rules” that will tell you everything you need to know to create a basic character and then use that character to play as part of a group. There are a lot more character options out there than what are given in the free PDF, but you don’t really need to have those extra options to get started. And, even though I’m really not trying to talk too much about Pathfinder, you can get something called the System Reference Document for free on the internet from Paizo, and that has all of the basic Pathfinder rules in it, plus a lot of extra options. And, as I said earlier, those rules are very similar to D&D 3.5, and the SRD is the closest thing you’ll be able to find if you’re looking for the 3.5 rules. It’s very difficult (read: expensive) to obtain actual D&D 3.5 rulebooks, because they’ve been out of print for years.
Dice are not free, and D&D doesn’t just use normal, six-sided dice. There are all kinds of crazy dice that you need to have, and we call this a “polyhedral dice set”, or “poly set” for short. You probably won’t be able to find these just anywhere, but you can pick up a set at your local game store. Expect to pay between $4 and $10 for your set, as long as you don’t want anything fancy like gemstone dice, or titanium dice, or hand-carved wooden dice made out of genuine driftwood from the inaccessible beaches of the Galapagos Islands. Trust me, you can spend as much on a set of dice as you want. And you can buy more than one set. And, if you keep playing, you will buy more than one set. Many more. Just watch and see.
While you’re at your local game store buying your first set of dice, you can take a moment and talk to your friendly local game store employee or owner about finding a group to play with. A lot of D&D groups actually meet to play at local game stores, so it’s a pretty decent place to start looking, unless you happen to have family or friends who play. I’m assuming that because you’re reading this article, instead of being told the information directly by your family or friends, that you probably don’t have a friends-and-family game to jump into. Wondering how to find a good game store with things like dice for sale and D&D group connections? WotC has got you covered there as well: on their website, you can put in your ZIP code and get a listing of what’s near you. Your game store can also probably steer you towards social media about D&D in your community, and that can be a great place to meet up with a group.
And, if you absolutely can’t find a group to join, don’t despair! There’s always the good old internet to come to the rescue. Yes, you can play D&D over the internet, complete with virtual game boards, dice-rolling programs, and live chat sessions with your fellow players. Now, in my opinion, getting out into the real physical world with some people face-to-face is the best way to play D&D, and you should definitely try it. But, if you live in Upper Mongolia, or if you just aren’t very good with people (again, that’s a future article), you might go to someplace like Roll20 and look for a group there.
So, Get Moving!
With that, I’ll bring this article to a close. There will be another one soon to talk a little more about how roleplaying games, and the tabletop variety in particular, actually work. But, if you find a group of people to play with, they can probably answer your questions and show you the ropes better than I can with an article on a website. Still, if you love the way my dulcet pixels slide over your eyeballs, you can look forward to a future installment. Until then, my nascent gamers, you have your homework assignment. Get your free downloads, maybe buy dice, and at least get started on finding a group. I’ll meet you right back here later to explain how D&D games actually run, and arm you with the basic concepts that will have you playing successfully right out of the gate.
Here’s a list of the links from this article, all in one place: